What Do Readers Really Want From Literary Adaptations?

Great Gatsby MovieLooking ahead at the movie landscape for the rest of 2013 is much like looking ahead at the movie landscape in any given year. As always, sprinkled in amongst all the superhero sequels and reboots, horror flicks, rom-coms, and indies are a fair few literary adaptations, including Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby, Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Catching Fire, a Carrie remake, and World War Z.

It’s hard to tell, of course, if this year’s adapted offerings will please crowds and critics the way Life of Pi, Les Misérables, Lincoln, and Silver Linings Playbook did in 2012. And a big reason for the challenge is that it’s so difficult in the first place to determine exactly what we readers (presumably a sizable portion of these films’ audience) want from our adaptations. There are, as I see it, two general modes of thought. On the one hand are those who want replication–a careful, detailed transfer from page to screen. These folks ask that the director and writer(s) revere the book and recognize the grave responsibility with which they have been entrusted. On the other hand are those who simply want the spirit of the work to reach the screen, and willingly cede the often proprietary instincts that come with loving a particular book to those charged with adapting it.

But the reality is that these generalizations only hold up in the abstract, falling right apart when our most beloved books are involved.

Take the Harry Potter octet. I always went into those movies knowing that so much of what I loved would get cut in the interest of time and pace, and so a weird pre-disappointment hovered over the proceedings at each new installment. In those movies’ specific case, I would’ve gladly accepted six-and-a-half-hour director’s cuts if it meant seeing Nearly Headless Nick’s Deathday Party in all its macabre glory. And while I understand why the studio chose a different path (namely, making movies people could, you know, sit through), my personal attachment to that series meant that I would have willingly sacrificed the broader quality of the films to satisfy my own selfish desires.

But The Hunger Games? Do your thing, adaptation butchers! Chop it up! Oh, Madge isn’t in the movie? The relationship with Rue isn’t fully explored? Don’t care; let’s keep it moving, people. Cut it, slim it down, make it more propulsive.

Why the change in approach? Simple: I love the Harry Potter books. I merely like The Hunger Games and its sequels.

The lesson here should be obvious: the bigger a fan you are of a given book, the less sensible you’re likely to be when it comes to its adaptation. This seems obvious, of course; a lot of readers get downright parental when it comes to their favorites. I know I felt that way about The Lord of the Rings and Watchmen and The Road, three books I’m practically evangelistic about which were adapted to varying degrees of commercial success and (more importantly for our purposes) reader appreciation. In the cases of each of these adaptations, my highly specific hopes and expectations diminished the viewing experiences. That isn’t to say that I didn’t like the movies. I (mostly) did; it’s just that the entire time I watched I was also checking off a list of things done and not done by the filmmakers, keeping a barometric account of how well the movie lined up with my vision of what it “should” have been.

This possessiveness may be par for the book-loving course, but it can lead to a lot of unnecessary disappointment and bitterness. Because while some adaptations might fail utterly, most of them offer at least some brief echo of the book to enjoy, even if they don’t play out exactly as we might prefer. And sometimes, when we’re lucky, we get a Fight Club or a High Fidelity that takes the book’s most salient qualities and distills them so well that the film comes to serve in our minds as a sort of aesthetic extension of the book, something that aims to enhance, rather than replace, the narrative we so adored in the first place.

Let’s hope for a few of those in 2013, shall we?


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